Saturday, February 24, 2018

Chucho, Gonzalo & the (brief) story of Cuban music

I was invited to speak last night at a reception prior to last night's Symphony Center concert Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance. It came my way because of the writing I do for Agúzate, Chicago's online magazine of Afro Latin Music and Culture.

I thought, because of a misunderstanding on my part, that I would be speaking from a lectern, so I prepared a presentation that would last 10-15 minutes and be partially devoted to the history of Cuban music, leading to Chucho and Gonzalo's place in that ongoing story. What happened instead is that I was the featured panelist in a one-on-one discussion moderated by Karla Leal, a reporter with Telemundo's Chicago outlet. That turned out to be a far superior experience for me and, I believe, the audience, because I was able to respond to the questions from a place of knowledge that went deeper than what I covered in my notes, yet do it in a more casual, engaging way. At the same time, lots of the more academic stuff got left out. Ah, well. At least I was prepared.

I've moderated plenty of discussions in my day, but here the roles were reversed, and I was the "expert". I generally loathe being considered an expert at anything, because for me the joy comes from something that I don't yet know but might discover tomorrow. I recently did some work under my marketing persona of Home Base Arts for Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole, and as he told me about his creative process and the history and heritage that feed it, I was blown away as the cultural connections between past, present and possibly future were revealed.

Nonetheless, here I was in the role of expert, with people depending on me for insight on the music they were about to hear. And I gotta admit, having several people come up to me afterward to thank me or even solicit my opinion (What do I think about Rubén Gonzales?) was a blast.

I think it is my sociology training that has led to my curiosity (or is it the other way around?). When I hear music that I like, I tend to become a bit obsessed and need to immediately start looking into what it is and where it came from and what forces shaped it. I told as much to someone after the presentation last night, that I first heard Latin music in high school in the form of Santana, then heard my first pure salsa record a short time after graduating from college (El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico) and I've been finding out everything I can about Afro Latin music ever since.

This blog, too, comes out of my sociology training. The concept of community and the cultural unfolding and transformation that results from migration are my two overarching themes, but I'm pretty sure I came to that from music, not the other way around.

Anyway... I went through the process of writing 1,100+ words on Cuba and Chucho and Gonzalo, and I even learned a thing or two while doing that. If you're still reading, then maybe I've got you for the next 1,100 words, too.


Tonight you will hear two Cuban piano masters engaging in a dialog. The music that they will be playing emerges out of a tradition that goes back several centuries or more, and it contains both folkloric and classical elements. In the end, though, it is uniquely Cuban.

To trace the roots of the music that you will hear tonight, you have to go back nearly 3000 years, to when the Phoenicians, a Semitic people with origins in the Middle East, established a trading post in what would become the bustling port city of Cadiz on Spain’s southwest coast. Before Christopher Columbus set off on his expedition in 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was a collection of smaller kingdoms with distinct traditions, languages and customs. The southern area of Andalucia was ruled by the Moors, who were Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East. When you hear flamenco music, you are hearing a direct link to Arabic melodies and rhythms. Meanwhile, the northern and central areas were more connected to the rest of Europe, and their customs and culture followed suit.

By the time the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria departed that same port of Cadiz, the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united and these two cultures were blended. Together, this new superpower exerted greater control over the rest of Iberia. Over the next century and a half, the “New World” colonies were established, bringing untold wealth back to Europe in the form of such newly discovered, and instantly fashionable, products like coffee, chocolate, tobacco and spices. The labor engine that facilitated that wealth was the Atlantic slave trade, which brought millions of Africans to the Americas. The Caribbean port through which much of this movement of people and goods passed through was Havana, Cuba. When you listen to Cuban music, then, you are listening to a mixture of European structure, Middle Eastern harmonics and African rhythms.

A distinct Cuban style of music, and especially piano playing, emerged out of European classical music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Cuba, the French contradanse, or ‘country dance’, evolved into the contradanza as syncopations of African origin were blended into it. This musical style further evolved into the danzón by the late 19th century. Perhaps the most famous composer and pianist of this classical style is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. Smaller danzón ensembles like Orquesta Aragon began including bongos and other drums, blending them with violins and flutes to create a sound known as charanga.

By the 1930s, North American jazz was flavoring the stew along with a stronger emphasis on what were now distinctly Afro-Cuban rhythms, and you hear the beginnings of the mambo and the cha-cha. The Afro-Cuban conga and bongo drums, whose rhythms were up to this point merely hinted at, were now front and center, along with horn arrangements borrowed from jazz. There were a handful of innovators who led the way here. Bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdés were primary among them. 

When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, Bebo and Cachao were often leading the sessions. At the same time, African-American jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie were taking note of what was going on and started experimenting with Cuban rhythms, giving rise to what would be known as Latin jazz. When you hear a salsa or Latin jazz band really stretch out and cook, you are hearing a descendant of those descargas.

Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking group Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba. The ensemble, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. When I say “deeply spiritual”, I’m referring to the role of the drum itself, because before it appeared in popular music, its function was strictly a sacred one in the rites of the Afro-Cuban santaría religion that derived from the spiritual concepts and practices of the West African Yoruba people.

Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.

Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out in the U.S. by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year. 

Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Over the last three-plus decades, Chucho Valdés has released over 30 albums, including his 2015 “Tribute to Irakere” with his group the Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, which he performed live here at Symphony Center. Rubalcaba has been similarly prolific, releasing nearly 30 albums since then, and he too, has recently been at Symphony Center, performing solo in 2012.

Because of the nature of tonight’s concert, I need to make special mention of Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo Valdés. Entitled Juntos para Siempre, the album is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.

So that’s what you’ll be hearing tonight: Thousands of years of musical history distilled through a very special place called Cuba that will manifest itself as a musical conversation between friends who are perhaps the most important pianists to emerge from Cuba in the modern era. They began this collaboration a few years ago and call it Trance because it explores the profound spiritual connection that remains at the heart of Cuban music. You won’t hear any drums tonight, but you will feel them.

Instead, you’ll hear two musicians with a historic relationship to the Cuban piano tradition engaged in open-ended, respectful conversation. You’ll hear two friends whose mutual admiration for each other and the tradition they represent weave everything together until ultimately they almost speak as one.

And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will also be sonic fireworks from these master musicians. Their hearts, after all, beat to the rhythm of Cuba.
Chucho & Gonzalo: Masters at Work, Symphony Center, 2/23/18

Monday, October 30, 2017

Double Shot of The Sun of Latin Music

I had the good fortune of two recent interactions with the legendary Eddie Palmieri. The salsa and Latin jazz genius who is an NEA Jazz Master came to Chicago last week for a pair of concerts at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I reached out to him in advance with an interview request that he graciously accepted. I went to the show and was able to meet him afterward. If I had a bucket list, I could now remove "Meet Eddie Palmieri" from it. Hell, after this, I could just throw the list away.

Anyway, it is my additional good fortune to write for Agúzate, a Chicago-based journal of Afro-Latin music & culture. Both the interview with El Maestro and subsequent concert review are reprinted here.

There are also a few photos from my friend Charlie Billups, who tirelessly documents the experience Afro-Latin community of Chicago with his work. You can check more of that here.

Eddie Palmieri: 80 Years and Growing (the interview)

Chicago is a fortunate city in that The Sun of Latin Music, El Maestro Eddie Palmieri, has visited us with various bands in tow four times in as many years. Despite the enormous expense of taking a big band on the road, the good folks at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have dug deep into their pockets not once, but twice, to bring the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra to Millennium Park. Interspersed with those huge events were a show at the deeply missed Mayne Stage with trumpeter and Simpático album collaborator Brian Lynch and a Latin Jazz Septet performance at Symphony Center.

Chicago’s hot streak continues this Friday when the intimate Old Town School of Folk Music presents the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band for two shows. The visit follows up the April release of Sabiduria, a richly textured and rhythmically exciting album featuring Eddie’s core band and a diverse cast of guest musicians ranging from Cuban violinist Alfredo de la Fé to New Orleans saxophonist (and Mardi Gras Indian Chief) Donald Harrison and the king of funky drumming himself, Bernard Purdie, who first played with Eddie on the 1971 landmark album Harlem River Drive.

Sabiduria expertly covers everything from Afro-Cuban roots music to New Orleans second line funk, all under the wide umbrella of Latin Jazz. When salsa took a turn into slick corporate vapidity in the early 90’s, Palmieri refused to go along for the ride, instead concentrating his formidable talents as a composer, arranger and pianist into jazz and producing the frankly amazing Palmas in 1994. La Perfecta II in 2002 was something of a return to classic salsa, charanga, and mambo in honor of the 4oth anniversary of his groundbreaking debut as a bandleader, but it, too, was graced with tremendous jazz improvisers given plenty of room to do their thing. Simpático won a much deserved Grammy for best Latin Jazz Album in 2007.

That was followed by a long period of studio silence until filmmaker Bobbito Garcia asked him to contribute music to Doin’ It In the Park, his documentary on New York street basketball, in 2012. Three tunes from those sessions made it to Sabiduria. We have the visionaries at Ropeadope Records to thank for adding nine more and making them all widely available.

Core musicians from these sessions (Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero congas, Camilo Molina timbales, Louis Fouche alto sax) will be joined by trumpeter Alex Norris and bassist Rubén Rodriguez at the Old Town School shows.

Eddie Palmieri was kind enough to answer a few of my questions when I reached out to him last week.

Don Macica (DM) – I’ve read that you turned to jazz because it’s hard to land salsa gigs, but I also know that you studied the jazz greats along with the Cuban greats when you were coming up in the 50s. Do you have a preference? What do you consider yourself as an artist?

Eddie Palmieri (EP) – I have always been a leader of Orchestra Dance Bands. The writing was on the wall in the early 90’s when the (salsa) genre changed regarding true dance music. The structures were changed to emphasize the vocalist and the tension and resistance needed in the arrangement were abolished. Salsa Romantica or Salsa Sensual became the popular sound and personally I will never succumb to musical mediocrity. So, Latin Jazz was the mission. In 1994 I became a Governor in the New York Chapter of NARAS and I was able to become a driving force for the Academy to recognize and open up a category. I consider myself a sincere musical student. The playback of my discography does not lie.

DMSabiduria feels a little bit like a career summation, albeit a very adventurous one. There’s great jazz, but also some very pure Afro-Cuban stuff and the title track is a fat slice of jazz-funk that recalls Harlem River Drive. Is there any separation between these genres in your approach?

EPSabiduria, in my opinion, is the greatest “Latin Jazz” recording ever! The personnel that my son Eddie Palmieri II put together and produced was outstanding. Like I said earlier I have always loved musical extensions throughout my career.

DM – What was the inspiration that brought Donald Harrison to Sabiduria?

EP – Donald Harrison has always been a part of this family since Palmas in 1994. We love him dearly and not only is he a great musician but a great human being.

DM – At the age of 80, where do you get your energy and creativity? What does the future hold for Eddie Palmieri?

EP – Getting stronger every day! Chocolate Armenteros, the great Cuban trumpet player, said “When you get to the age of 50 you start counting by ones”, so I am only 30 years old with 60 years of musical and bandstand experience!

Concert Review: The Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band (the review)

Eddie Palmieri brought what was, for the celebrated salsa orchestra leader and NEA Jazz Master, a smallish ensemble with him to the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday night, but the joyful noise that they made together was a testament to the power of Eddie’s playing, composing and arranging skills. When you add in the charm and personality that El Maestro carries with him always, you have the recipe for a truly special night. Mixing references to both family and his beloved Puerto Rico into the between songs commentary, Eddie engaged the audience emotionally as well as musically.

The evening opened with a solo piano meditation on Palmieri’s late wife, weaving together two compositions, Mi Novia and Life, together in her honor. From there on, though, it was time for el ritmo.

As Eddie said in last week’s Agúzate interview, the man absolutely refuses to indulge in mediocrity. He reiterated this at the show, noting that the harmonic complexities of jazz wed to the African derived rhythms of Cuban drumming are pretty much everything that’s worth doing musically. And, of course, he had a band with him that was spectacular at both.

The all-Puerto Rico rhythm section of bassist Rubén Rodriguez, timbalero Camilo Molina, conguero Vicente “Little Johnny” Rivero and El Rumbero del Piano himself absolutely killed it all night long. Meanwhile, Alex Norris’ trumpet and Louis Fouché’s alto sax burned with fire and grace.

In addition to selections from his latest album Sabiduria, the group went back to the 70s several times for recasts of classic Palmieri tunes like La Libertad Logico, Puerto Rico and Chocolate Ice Cream (written with the great Cuban trumpeter Chocolate Armenteros). Each was introduced with an anecdote from Palmieri’s life about the origins of the song. Some were humorous. Others addressed the tragic situation of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria but also the strength, resilience and pride of the Puerto Rican people, even suggesting that it was time for the island to resume its pre-conquest name of Borikén.

All in all, it was an extraordinary night. Today, as I go back and listen to classic records like Vamanos Pa’l Monte and Sentido, I’ll also have photographer Charlie Billups‘ images from the concert to remind me of just how extraordinary it was. 


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Chicago represent! ESSO adds to the city’s global music reputation.

Whew. It's been awhile. The good news is that I'm busy. My highly individualized idea of a third act career is humming along in the right direction. My personal situation is better than it has been in many years. The bad news is that I've neglected Border Radio.

I've been doing a lot of writing for Agúzate, a publication started by my friend Omar Torres-Kortright. I'm lucky that its journalistic and cultural mission coincides with my interests, and the world it covers—the cultural experience of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora as it exists in Chicago—is filled with never ending things to explore. Just like Chicago itself, the primary motivator for this blog.

So I'm going to ease back in by republishing my latest Agúzate contribution, which looks at a Chicago band that, to me, represents what is really wonderful about living in this city by the lake.

For the last couple of decades, musicians from Chicago have placed the city squarely on the national musical map with their community based, multi-discipline artistic approach. It is perhaps most evident in hip-hop, where Chance the Rapper and Jamila Woods continue a legacy established by Common, Rhymefest and Kanye West.

Meanwhile, a parallel Latin scene has slowly developed, and the fruits of many years efforts are starting to pay off. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta broke first in 2013 with their aggressive cumbia/chicha sound and thoughtful sociopolitical manifesto, making a strong case for the groove as an agent of social change. Their sound has since evolved to more of a pan-Latin rock reflective of its member’s Mexican, Panamanian, Puerto Rican and Texan backgrounds.

Now, ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat, who have been on the scene for almost as long, are making their move. They scored a SXSW gig earlier this year, then followed it up by opening for the legendary Café Tacvba at Taste of Chicago this summer.  Now they have released their second album, Juntos, and are in the midst of an eighteen-date national tour.

ESSO might just be the band the country needs in these dark days of the Trump presidency. Like Dos Santos, the diversity of the band’s members contributes to its sound and message, with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Colombian and African American backgrounds. The group also has two female members, adding another important perspective to the mix. A diverse cast of guest musicians, MCs and DJs further fills out the sound of Juntos.

 Between them, they’ve been raised on everything: Afro-Caribbean folkloric music to be sure, but also R&B, house, funk, hip-hop, jazz and a healthy dose of DJ dance floor beats. All of this comes to bear in their music. Songs are supported by lively and intricate polyrhythmic percussion and there are flashes of electric guitar, but most tracks exude a gently insistent groove reminiscent of the down-tempo global excursions of groups like Thievery Corporation. The rhymes come out of the conscious rap movement of poetic persuasion, not nihilistic despair. The horn arrangements are jazzy.

That’s not to say that this is some kind of easy listening music. The music is built for the dance floor, not the VIP lounge. Electronic beats and squiggles help that along, but the overall sound is organic, and underneath the smooth exterior are real roots and genuine commitment. Lyrically, songs address the contradictions of urban life faced by immigrant communities, but also love and the virtues of coming together to face them. There’s real fire to this music, albeit with an incandescence that smolders rather than blazes. It pulls you to the dance floor, not pushes.

ESSO reaches back beyond the Caribbean to Africa and skillfully blends those motherland elements into its rhythmic sancocho. Fela’s Afrobeat can be felt in some songs, but so does the jùjú music of that other giant of Nigerian music, King Sunny Ade, as well as the loping guitars of Ghanaian highlife.

Playing spot the influence is a lot of fun with this album, but each of them are smoothly integrated into a band sound that is uniquely theirs. I have a few favorite tracks, and you’ll no doubt have yours, but this collection of 13 songs is best consumed whole from beginning to end, like a good meal among friends.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón comes to the 'hood.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to explore Chicago's diversity through the lens of my own immigrant heritage. I've come to realize that even though I am a third generation American with little overt connection to my Czech grandparents and the country that they came from, I still identify with that heritage. This is not exactly specific to that particular European background, but rather a recognition of how growing up in Chicago along with other sons and daughters of immigrants provides the lens through which I view the Chicago of today.

When I visit the southwest side neighborhood that I grew up in and see that it is now predominantly Mexican-American, it makes perfect sense. Then and now, it is a tidy neighborhood of modest houses occupied by working class people who are striving to make a better world for their children, but the signs on the storefronts are in a different language. I have a real affinity for these simple neighborhoods far from the glamour of downtown.

Hermosa is one such neighborhood, albeit one much older than the post World War II area that I lived in. In the early 20th century, Hermosa was full of manufacturing and warehouse jobs. Schwinn bicycles came from Hermosa. Walt Disney was born to a carpenter father there. It was and still remains a blue collar place.

It is also, like my childhood home, now predominantly Latino. The forces at work here are a little bit different, though, as many of these residents were displaced from neighboring Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square by gentrification.

So was, in a sense, the place I was at last night. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, and a little over 40 of those years were spent in Wicker Park. The current space opened in 2013. Their core focus is on Puerto Rican culture, but expands to include other Latino groups as well. Last night they hosted saxophonist and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón in a free community event in conjunction with Zenón's Grammy nominated project Identities are Changeable, which is being presented live by the University of Chicago. Zenón was born in Puerto Rico, but by now he has lived over half of his life in the U.S. His heritage, though, remains the intellectual center of his work, so far spawning no less than five albums.

I wrote an appreciation of the event for Agúzate, an Afro-Latin journal that is kind enough to publish my work. You can read that HERE, but before you do, let me quote Miguel Zenón from an interview I did with him a few weeks ago.

“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”

Indeed. I am far from my grandparents immigrant experience, but I can imagine them negotiating life in a new country far from their place of birth. My parents grew up Americans, of course, but Czech was still spoken in their childhood homes. And now there is me, further removed, yet still connected by the same bloodline.

And I can relate.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Getting through this thing called life

I should be working right now. I have clients who are expecting stuff from me. So, apologies there. I'll get back to you soon. Promise!

The sudden death of Prince yesterday morning has turned everything upside down. I've been able to get back to work periodically by shutting off my social media feeds. This, however, is nearly impossible when social media is one of the tools that you use to earn a living. So most of the last two days have been consumed with me consuming a non-stop stream of Prince related material: tributes, personal reflections, videos, news reports. It is what social media does best, creating community out of a far flung network of friends, associates and the friends and associates of friends and associates. (Read it slowly. It does make sense.)

It also raises questions. What does it mean when you are brought to tears, like I have been repeatedly over the last two days, by someone you don't really know? The answer lies, I think, in the power of art, but it also lies in each of us and how we have reacted to that art. In the case of Prince, everything - his music, of course, but also his style, his attitude, his willingness to be confrontational, his honesty that masqueraded itself as fantasy, his spirituality, his sexuality - was his art.

I loved Prince. No, let me change that to the present tense. I love Prince. Because, for most of us, Prince is a collection of impressions forged through media. Even those of us who were lucky enough to see a live performance, well, that's what it was, a performance, those impressions brought magically to life for a brief time. And all of that still exists, even if only in our minds. Hell, in the coming days, months and years there will be even more. So, yes, I love Prince. Present tense.

I find writing somewhat difficult. I'm methodical. I relentlessly self-edit. Words might tumble out of my fingers, but they will be sliced and diced a thousand times before anyone gets to read them, and even then I'll have regrets. This is not a particularly useful trait in the internet and social media age, where being first is a prized advantage. As a consequence, you'll never see long Facebook posts from me about anything. I just don't trust myself enough to rush anything out there.

But the last 24 hours of reading other people trying to make sense out of their grief over Prince's death has been quite amazing. Reading them has provided me an insight into who they are that I previously lacked. One was from a work colleague from two decades ago. A gay African-American man in his 40's (dude, I'm sorry if I'm guessing wrong) who has since moved to New York, wrote a long and illuminating post that said, in part, "I think PRINCE was the first being who I recognized did not give a single f*uck what you thought about him. I remember in the 80's being more than a little afraid of PRINCE. He exuded a black gender bending sexuality that dared you to look. He confronted my own awakening queerness with a bravery I didn't possess. And he not only made it ok to be other, he rejoiced in it."

Another couldn't come from a more different source, but then again, maybe not. A 30-ish (again, apologies if I got that part wrong) Mexican-American woman that I just met in January wrote "Imagine being 13, pretty sheltered, Catholic-school educated and discovering songs like Cream, Horny Toad, Erotic City, Darling Nikki, Get Off and Sexy MF... at a time when the message I got constantly and from all directions that sex was wrong and dirty, Prince offered an opposing message and for that I'm forever grateful."

A third friend is a filmmaker and undoubtedly the biggest Prince fan I know. You know that language that Prince invented, the one that substitutes pictures, numerals and single letters for words? A week hasn't gone by in the last decade where I didn't see a post of his that employed that vocabulary. Of course my friend is posting about Prince regularly, but mostly upbeat stuff accompanied by statements of faith and, dare I say it, joy. Perhaps he is masking his grief, or, equally possible, perhaps he understands Prince in a different way than the rest of us. But I've also noticed something else, a community of people I don't know at all reaching out to my friend to offer him condolences, like you do with family.

Another was a re-purposed Twitter post from someone that I don't even know: "Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves." 

And, finally, a brief exchange that I had with a fellow culture writer whose work I enjoy. We found ourselves on different parts of the Bowie-Prince continuum. I love Prince, admire Bowie. For her, the other way around.

So, why do I love Prince? I have to look to the 80s and where I was when I first became aware of him. So, where was I? Pretty much right where I was born, the south side of Chicago, and already a veteran of what we used to call the "record business". Totally into music, mostly rock but also R&B and even some disco. And I was getting divorced and working in a dive bar, taking advantage of my huge record collection, using it to fill a tiny dance floor. 

And Prince filled that damn dance floor, this sexy music from this ambiguously but very sexy little dude writing songs with a fearless freedom that my own life lacked. I saw the world a little differently after hearing Prince. With 1999, Prince seemed to peer into the future, see the apocalypse, and respond with hedonistic joy. Good news for all of us facing our tiny, private apocalypses every day. By Purple Rain he was already working both sides of the spiritual/sexual divide in astonishing fashion. It was a great soundtrack for a pretty chaotic time of my life, and it helped me find my way.

I generally respond to music feet first. If it doesn't make me want to move, then I have to consciously set my internal machinery to appreciation mode to give it a fair listen. Prince, of course, had this covered. I was hooked from the first four bars and had plenty of time later to admire its complexity and innovation. And that, I think, is why I merely admire David Bowie. It's no surprise that I actually like his Young Americans and Let's Dance stuff better, even if it's not acknowledged as his most creative stuff, even when I know Heroes or Ziggy are superior albums. To me, Bowie always felt like a method actor inhabiting and discarding radically different roles. An amazing artistic achievement, to be sure, but not one that spoke directly to my rock & soul aesthetic the way Prince did.

But I gotta give some props to David Bowie. 

Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown are often cited as Prince's antecedents, and even a casual listen brings all of those to the surface pretty quickly. Bowie's music would seem to be the antitheses of these, a deliberately artful construction designed for the head, not the body. But the outpourings that came in the wake of Bowie's death earlier this year have a remarkable similarity to those I've read in the last two days: Bowie made it OK for me to be me. I can't help but think that Prince saw that too.

Adios, sweet Prince. I'll see you in the after world. 


Monday, March 14, 2016

Lone Piñon: Getting to the heart of it

My work brings me in contact with a number of musicians who play traditional Mexican folk. Unlike pop music, which freely draws from anywhere it wants, I sometimes hear questions of authenticity with regards as who gets to play traditional Mexican music and under what conditions it is performed. There is a certain amount of wariness when it comes to perceived interlopers that borrow from traditional forms, but bend them to their own artistic purposes, something that creatively restless pop musicians often depend on for inspiration. Think Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne, to name three that I've always admired. Yet, I've even heard criticism of groups like East LA's Las Cafeteras, who mix up folk forms like son jarocho with indie pop songwriting, traces of hip-hop and a left leaning political platform. This, despite the fact that, as Chicanos, they would seem to have a legitimate claim on Mexican roots music.

And that brings me to this past Friday night and a show at Sabor a Café Steakhouse by Lone Piñon, a trio from Santa Fe, New Mexico that plays Mexican music in a stripped down, but ultimately complex manner: a trio of fiddle, guitar and guitarrón who perform totally acoustic, standing behind a single microphone through which all amplification passes, instruments and vocals alike, resulting in a startlingly organic sound that washes over you all at once without stereo separation.

Only Noah Martinez, the guitarrón player, hails from New Mexico, and his family roots go back all the way to colonial times. The other members of the trio, fiddler / lead vocalist Jordan Wax and guitarist Greg Glassman, come to Mexican folk from other fields. Wax, a Missouri native, studied Ozark mountain fiddling, has done time in a Klezmer punk band and, while living in Quito, Ecuador, played in a Latin Ska group. Guitarist Glassman, from New York City, studied with Gnawa musicians in Morocco, drummed for experimental jazz and Irish punk outfits, and even played rockabilly and gospel before traveling to Veracruz to study son jarocho.

They've been together as Lone Piñon for only a few years, but if I had to judge from what I heard Friday night absent any other information, I'd swear they've been doing this their whole lives. They concentrate on music from Mexico's Huasteca and Tierra Caliente regions, plus the area known as El Rio Grande del Norte: Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. There are occasional forays into West Texas swing, son jarocho, corrido and even ranchera. Huapangos are the attention getters, but there are waltzes and polkas sprinkled through and even the occasional tender ballad. After a while, you start to hear the sound behind the sound, as intimations of the music's European and American folk influences simmer just below the surface. At times, it even feels a bit like gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.

Ultimately, you sense the band's deep respect for the music and cultures from which it emerged, honoring its integrity with the purity of their all acoustic instrumental approach. There is no updating going on, but there is a subtle blending, like a good spice mix, as they bring their diverse backgrounds to this music. New Mexico itself, you might remember, was Mexico (along with Arizona, Texas Nevada and California) until what is called on this side of the border the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, which resulted in massive U.S. expansion. It has the highest percentage of both Hispanic and Indigenous populations of any contiguous U.S. state. But it's also close to the Midwest and it of course borders Texas and Oklahoma. All of this is present in New Mexico, and it is present in the music of Lone Piñon as well.

But enough of academics! Lone Piñon are, first and foremost, crack musicians and singers, but the casualness of their presentation belies this expertise, instead conjuring the feel of a gathering of good friends. Jordan Wax kills on Huapango style vocals, and when Glassman joins in on harmonies, the effect is magic, made all the more so by their unique one microphone presentation. The interplay between fiddle and guitar, anchored by Martinez's flawless bottom on the guitarrón, will make your jaw drop, then pull it back up into a wide grin.

Lone Piñon's recorded live in the studio album Trio Nuevomexicano was just released, and I'm kicking myself that I spent all my money on cerveza on Friday, leaving nothing for the CD. But you can download it from Amazon or stream it on Spotify, and it does a pretty darn good job of capturing who they are. Nothing beats a live show, though, so check their website to find out when they're coming to a city or folk festival near you.

You wont regret it.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Orbert Davis and the new faces of Cuba

As I entered Chicago's Auditorium Theatre on a blustery Friday evening, I believed that I was quite prepared for what I was about to see and hear. Orbert Davis and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic was presenting an ambitious new project, "Scenes From Life: Cuba!" in collaboration with one of Havana's top music schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA). My expectations were shaped by the fact that I had been tracking the project for several months and had very recently interviewed Davis about it for a preview article published at Agúzate, the blog of a Chicago-based organization dedicated to Afro-Latin music and culture.

Here were my expectations: I would see, working together side by side, Cuban music students and their American professional counterparts. I would hear the CJP's unique form of orchestral, third stream jazz. I would hear some Cuban music. I would go home happy.

A few days earlier, 37 young music students and a school administrator had arrived in Chicago from Havana. It was, for all of them, their first trip beyond Cuba's borders. The project had its origins in two trips that Orbert Davis made to Cuba in 2012 and 2014. It was on the earlier trip that he first encountered the school and its talented students. The return two years later was for the express purpose of collaborating with the school for a performance at the Havana Jazz Festival. Davis brought a few key members of the CJP with him: Steve Eisen on winds, bassist Stewart Miller, Leandro Lopez Varady on piano and drummer Ernie Adams. To say that they are among Chicago's best jazz musicians sells them short. Rather, it's more accurate to say that they are world class musicians who happen to call Chicago home. Along with Davis's trumpet and direction, the five conducted workshops, master classes and rehearsals in the days leading to the Havana concert. The idea was that the students would "become" the CJP for a day, filling out the 40 or so chairs normally occupied by the orchestra's string, woodwind and horn players.

Smack dad in the middle of those rehearsals, something happened. You could call it coincidence. You could call it divine providence. Whatever it was, on December 17, 2014, Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama of the United States simultaneously went on TV to announce the beginnings of normalized relations between two governments that had quite literally been enemies for over 50 years.

Cue the celebration.

I use the word "government" very much on purpose, because the people of each country have had no shortage of interest and affection for each other over the years. It would appear that, finally, the politicians recognize this essential truth and are taking significant steps to catch up with their citizens.

Again, I knew all of that when I took my seat in the concert hall. And I still wasn't prepared for what came next.

It starts with a backdrop of colonial Havana suspended over the orchestra, superimposed with an image of the U.S. flag. It is a huge orchestra, made up of, I'm guessing, 80 or so musicians from Cuba and the U.S., and they are performing the Star Spangled Banner together. As we reflexively do in this country (and, I suppose, in countries everywhere), the audience stands for its national anthem. Some sing along, others put their hand on their heart like they were taught in grade school. Then, with barely a pause, the flag of Cuba appears alongside that of the U.S. and the orchestra plays La Bayamesa, the Cuban anthem. The audience is momentarily confused, having already started to sit down. Everyone, though, is quickly back on their feet, showing their respect for the students and the country they came from.

My eyes are slightly moist as I sit down, and Davis, like a proud father, takes the microphone to share his enthusiasm not only for the project, but also for the students themselves, whom he has clearly come to love. The formal program begins with a version of of Davis' composition Diaspora, which appeared on the CJP's debut album 10 years ago. In some ways, the African diaspora is at the heart of this project. The slave trade forcibly brought Africans to the United States, but far more were brought to Latin America. Orbert Davis and the Cuban students are descendants of these diverging journeys, just as jazz and rumba are its cultural flowerings. The 'proud father' reference is apt, because in a very real way, Davis and the young Cubans are having a family reunion. Trust me, when all of that comes together with the mighty sound of an 80 piece orchestra, the effect is truly profound.

The diaspora plays a part in the evening's second selection as well, Chicago @173, which Davis composed for his score to the documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis. The first part of the title refers to the city's first resident, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a free black man, likely from Hispaniola, the island just to the east of Cuba that is now home to the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The first half of the concert concludes with five movements from Havana Blue, the project that first brought Davis to Cuba in 2012. It was written in collaboration with choreographer Frank Chaves and presented by the CJP and River North Dance Chicago in 2013. That concert was easily one of the best performances that I saw that year, but this time around, by subtracting the dancers and adding 50 or so musicians, it was, for me, a far more powerful musical experience.

After intermission, Davis came out to say that we could, basically, throw our programs away. Some time between the students' arrival on Monday and today, the first three songs were scrapped in favor of the CJP leaving the stage entirely to the young Cubans, dubbing the segment "Postcards From Cuba," with each song spotlighting a different Cuban rhythm. First, a string quintet absolutely killed on a rendition of Cumbanchero. Then, the rest of the students came out for a rhythmic Guaguanco, followed by the drop-dead gorgeous bolero Quiereme Mucho that brought one of the violinists out of her regular element for a beautifully sung lead vocal. Finally, a spirited Guantanamera in which several students took turns putting down their instruments so they could dance to the guajira-son.

I should, I suppose, say something about the musical talent of the students, because it was, from time to time, jaw-droppingly good. Violin players, reedists, trumpeters and percussionists all took turns soloing. For me, the violinists were especially noteworthy. You just don't hear that much swinging violin outside of a Regina Carter concert (although in Chicago we are blessed with James Sanders and his Latin jazz ensemble Conjunto), but one after another, these kids stood up and swung with total assurance. It no doubt helps that Cuba has such a strong charanga tradition, but still... Oh, and the three Cuban percussionists... The CJP has a certified maestro conguero in Joe Rendón, but he spent a fair amount of the evening proudly watching his young charges do most of the heavy lifting.

The entire CJP+ISA Orchestra came together for another powerful take of an older CJP tune before the night's premiere, Scenes From Life, a work composed especially for this collaboration. This new work perfectly captured the essence of everything the collaboration stood for: Davis' third stream jazz/classical aesthetic matched to Cuban soul and sensibility. It occurred to me quite suddenly that I was hearing something unprecedented: An 80 piece orchestra roaring with the power and finesse of  Machito's big band in a piece every bit as ambitious as Tanga, Mario Bauzá's famous Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.

Nope, I wasn't prepared for that, either.

All photos by Darron Jones
The evening ended with the joyous jam session Orlando's Walk, also written by Davis for Havana Blue. I think pretty much everyone took a solo on this one. OK, I exaggerate a bit, but there were a lot. This included Davis, whose trumpet spent much of the evening on its stand, but he had the time of his life trading choruses with two young Cubans for several minutes.

All good things must end. A long standing ovation and countless on stage hugs finally gave way to the audience filing out of the hall with a marked bounce in their step. But I still had one more unexpected experience in store. Two of the students had family in Chicago that they had never met. Such was the crime that was the 50 year separation between often hostile governments. Witnessing this actual family reunion gave me hope for a world that, on this particular Friday night, was just learning the horrific news of the terror in Paris.

Chicago has benefited from the tours of several Cuban greats in the past couple of years. Together, the legends that are Orquesta Aragón, Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van and Chucho Valdés represent generations of Cuban music dating from both pre- and post-revolutionary eras. With Scenes From Life, we now have a look at the faces of a brand new era.

Bring it on.